First Air Services and Airfield

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Published 31st March 2022, 12:11pm

The Colonial Report of 1951-1952 paints the following picture of the Cayman Islands, “Nineteen fifty -one and 1952 have unquestionably been the two most prosperous years in the history of the Dependency and there has been quite extraordinary material development and economic progress.” (The Colonial Reports. Cayman Islands 1951 & 1952, p.3). It was the beginning of a period of transition from the familiar and long-established industries based on local resources, such as turtling, shipbuilding, ropemaking and sharking. As these became unsustainable, the economy came to rely on the remittances of seamen working overseas. The Report asserts that without these, Caymanians would not have been able to realise the standard of living to which they had grown accustomed. “It is for these reasons that it is of the first importance that the local economy should be strengthened and, apart from the relatively minor developments of which the turtle industry is capable, the policy has been to pave the way for the growth of the islands as a tourist resort”.  (Ibid.). Improved air services was identified as what was key to making this a reality. 

Prior to 1952, Cayman had enjoyed two seaplane services both provided by RAF war veterans. In 1946, King Parker Jr. formed a company called Jamaica Air Transport Ltd. and started weekly service between Kingston, Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac. After he was offered a small subsidy to deliver mail to Cayman in 1947, he renamed the company “Cayman Islands Airways Ltd.” Passengers flew from Tampa and landed in the North Sound, where they were met by Customs officials, then transported ashore in Mr. Benny Ross’ motorboat.  Within two years, this service suffered from financial trouble and fizzled out. By 1948, the second pioneer, Commander Owen Roberts, a former RAF wing commander took over some of Parker’s planes and negotiated to continue the air service. Calling the airline Caribbean International Airways (CIA), by 1950 he was providing a fairly regular service to Tampa, Kingston and Belize.   

Roberts, described as a man of vision, lobbied the Commissioners to seek help with the construction of a proper airfield, which was started in 1952 and described as “the biggest single project ever undertaken in the Cayman Islands” (Ibid., p.4). The estimated cost of the project was £93,000 pounds and was funded in large part from grants, loans and generous support of engineering staff and mechanical equipment from the Government of Jamaica. Preparatory work began in 1951, while actual work began in August 1952. The airfield was completed in March 1953 and officially opened in March 1954. 
 
On 28th November 1952, a Caribbean International Airways amphibian plane made a perfect trial-landing on the partially completed runway, watched by an enthusiastic crowd, marking this event as one of the most memorable happenings in the year 1952. 

This airline provided services for returning residents and visitors to the newly built hotels (The Galleon Beach Lodge (later developed into the Galleon Beach Hotel) and The Seaview Hotel) until 10th April 1953 when sadly, one of the Lodestar planes crashed on takeoff from the Palisadoes Airport in Jamaica. Roberts, the pilot, crew and thirteen passengers lost their lives on that tragic day. Roberts’ brother-in-law was the sole survivor.  For many months after, there was no regular air service to Cayman. By 1953, with the completion of the airstrip to international standards, BWIA began regular weekly flights between Kingston and Belize and LACSA began using the airport as a refueling stop. BWIA soon secured the right to fly in and out of Miami. By the end of 1954, between the two airlines, travelers to and from Cayman were able to choose from regular flights between Grand Cayman, Kingston, Miami, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. This was a huge benefit to the growing tourist industry, Caymanians living abroad and seamen whose only option had previously been the slow travel by ships. 

To delve more deeply into the full history of aviation in Cayman, visit the Cayman Islands National Archive to read records and booklets, view photographs or listen to Oral History interviews that give a fuller picture of this industry. 

(Our next post will focus on the first hotels, The Galleon Beach Lodge and the Seaview Hotel).

Image: DI 8387. Amphibian plane/seaplane 'Santa Maria' unloading passengers in the North Sound. Courtesy Compass Media Ltd. NOT TO BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE CAYMAN ISLANDS NATIONAL ARCHIVE.